In addition to his desk job at the precinct, Paul Gurney has long been in charge of the department newsletter known as The Homicider—covering workplace news, dispensing advice, and disseminating interoffice gossip. But now, in the wake of a divorce, he’s decided to retire. What will he do next?
The answer seems to come in the form of a shady Broadway impresario who wants to create a stage musical based on his newsletter. Gurney soon finds himself plunging headlong into the world of actors, agents, singers, songwriters, hacks, hams, and con artists. As the show, Violencia, moves from rounds of financing by suspect sources to questionable casting calls to a disastrous out-of-town opening (at each stage getting progressively—and hilariously—worse and worse), Gurney enjoys the high living, romantic flings, and glamour of the entertainment industry. But he also comes to realize that show people aren’t that different from other people he already knows: the thugs, lowlifes, and cutthroats he’s encountered during his career on the homicide squad . . .
“His writing is so funny—and deceptively effortless—critics often liken it to a stand-up comedy routine.” —The New York Times
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About the Author
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Closing in on age forty and rattled a bit by a recent divorce, Paul Gurney decided to quit his job and try for a completely new start in life. He was a tall, slightly under-nourished fellow with no particularly distinguishing characteristics except for a constant look of perplexity on his face, even as he slept. Or so he had been told. For years, he had been attached to a New York homicide bureau as a civilian clerk, getting out a lively monthly newsletter for the dicks called The Homicider.
Gurney had no particular idea of where he was headed, but he wasn't especially concerned about it. He had already gotten one offer — to serve as a guide for a two-state dam project out west, taking groups on underground tours and regaling them with anecdotes about the dam's construction and the difficulties faced by early laborers. But he was not convinced he wanted to go in that direction. Detective Turner, his boss in Homicide, had become reliant on Gurney and was not anxious to lose him. He told Gurney he felt it was a mistake for him to leave and tried to dissuade him.
"You are at least a year away," he warned his assistant.
But Gurney stuck to his guns and said he had to try something else in life, even if it was nothing spectacular. Though not an actual favorite, Gurney had been well-liked by the dicks. In the seven years since he had taken over its reins, The Homicider had gotten to be quite a respected publication around the Bureau. "My Favorite Collar," written each month by a different dick, was a popular feature. There was a hefty inventory of submissions that were targeted for future issues. The same was true of "Slab Happy," a roundup of amusing overheards at the morgue, written by the assistant coroner, who aspired to become a television gag writer. Gurney's own personal advice column, —"Ask Gurney," was a particular favorite at the Bureau, though the wife of one dick did hold Gurney accountable for her husband's early demise. The columnist had recommended mountain- climbing as a leisure activity for overly stressed homiciders. Shortly afterward, the woman's nearsighted spouse had plunged to his death from a treacherous peak in upstate New York.
But apart from the one episode, Gurney's record as an advice-giver was difficult to question.
Once Detective Turner saw that Gurney was determined to leave, he not only gave him his blessings, but arranged for the Bureau to give him a send- off party.
It was a lively affair. Several of the dicks, who were no great shakes at speaking in public, rose to their feet and gave stumbling testimonials to their colleague.
Gurney, not much of a speaker himself, kept his remarks short and sweet.
"I've made many friends in my eleven years here," he said, "and I'm glad I did."
As he sat down, and the dicks realized they had heard his entire speech, a collective groan could be heard throughout the rented hall. It was the first time Gurney had ever let them down.
Picking up the sentiment of the group, a tall vice dick named Centro asked: "Is that it?"
"That's the long and short of it," Gurney said.
As editor of The Homicider, he had been expected to be much more voluble and entertaining. Gurney, once he was seated, did think of several surefire manslaughter jokes, but it seemed embarrassing to ask for the floor again, and so he said no more. When the last portion of baked Alaska had been consumed by the dicks, and the banquet was winding down, he gathered up his farewell gifts, chief among them a dozen drink-holders that were shaped like handcuffs. Gurney then stuffed a few printed programs into his jacket pockets and said goodbye to the assembled detectives. He turned his back, much more easily than he'd expected, on eleven years of homicide.
After his divorce, Gurney had sublet a small apartment in the Village from a young one-armed Irish woman who worked as a civilian assistant in Armed Robbery. The woman appeared to like him, which accounted for her granting Gurney an exceptionally good deal on the rent. Twelve years of married life had at first made the prospect of living alone a little frightening, but he found he enjoyed the simplicity of it — cooking breakfast for himself, keeping the place tidy — and liked taking strolls through the neighborhood. It was a fascinating one, with twisty and mysterious side streets, a surprising number of them specializing in antique music boxes. He hadn't realized there was that great a demand for such a specialized item, and felt a need to stop in and buy one, if for no other reason than to help one of the stores along. Gurney enjoyed looking in the windows of all the shops, even the ones that sold only dresses. He felt sorry for most of them — lonely, defeated little out-of-the-way establishments — and couldn't see how the owners were able to make a go of it, or why they even bothered to keep them open. Just a place to go every day, he guessed.
And what did it say about Gurney that he felt sorrier for stores than he did for people?
It was not a bad time for him at all. At first he felt his serene life was much too good to continue, and that each day was a stolen one; but after a while, he began to think, Why not. He had some money saved, his rent was low, and he felt capable of carrying off this cool, pleasant existence for at least a couple of months.
Evenings, Gurney dropped into a fashionable bar and restaurant called Bombola's. It was run by a bluff and hearty-looking man who had been disbarred as an attorney for throwing a client through a window, then spent the next five years trying to get reinstated. When he had finally pulled it off, he announced, perversely, that he had decided to go into the restaurant business.
Gurney had first come across Bombola's when he had been with the Bureau. Prominent men and well-turned-out women were the main clientele. On his early visits, he had felt awkward and out of place in his wide, flowing detective-style pants. But now that he had resigned from the Bureau, he was more at ease about appearing in the plush and cozy little nightspot. Gurney was an outer-rim man, never quite getting a seat at a choice table; on the other hand, Bombola himself, on occasion, would nod in his direction. The bartenders knew him by name, although they tended, annoyingly, to call him "Gurns."
One Friday night, Gurney, seated at the bar, with a soft, comfortable buzz on, and not paying any particular attention to his surroundings, saw a small, slender, sandy-haired man with a neatly trimmed goatee being ushered along to a favored inner-rim table. The woman with the fellow, even by Bombola's standards, was especially attractive. Tall and blonde, she had a quiet air of money and good schools about her, along with a look of mischievous invitation. There was a small gap between her front teeth which did not reduce her appeal. In his current condition, Gurney noticed and admired women but did not particularly lust after them. In some curious way, he was pleased with himself for having arrived at this state. In a move reserved for a select few, Bombola himself took the couple's drink order but did not linger for the traditional embrace. To Gurney's surprise, the man got up from his table, walked to the bar, and asked if he would care to join him.
"If you're sure I'm not intruding," Gurney said. He'd never sat at one of the coveted inner-rim tables.
"Don't be ridiculous," said the man. "We'd love it."
Once they were seated, the fellow introduced himself as Norman Welles, his companion as Tippy Turnbull.
"I'm a composer, Paul," he said, "and I've been a fan of The Homicider for quite some time. Not only do I think it's brilliant, but I'm convinced it would make the basis of a terrific Broadway musical comedy. I've gone down the list of possible adapters and come to a conclusion: There's only one person in the world who can possibly write the libretto and bring the material to life on the stage.
"His name," he said, pausing for effect, as if he were delivering an award, "is Paul Gurney."
It was news to Gurney that someone outside of the Bureau was even aware of his publication. And Welles' proposal took him completely by surprise.
Once he had gotten his bearings, Gurney said: "It's nice of you to think of me, Mr. Welles, but I just don't see how I fit into the picture as a librettist. I did write a couple of sketches years back at the community college, but apart from that I have absolutely no experience in the field.
"Plus," he continued, "I've recently gotten divorced, and would just as soon not make any violent swerves in life."
"Then you won't do it," said Welles. "Is that what you're saying?"
"I guess so," said Gurney.
"I knew he wouldn't," Welles said to his lovely companion, with some bitterness in his voice. "He'll suck you in, make you think you've got him, and then pull out."
Gurney thought the man was being surprisingly childish about his position.
"I didn't suck you in," he said. "Besides, you're probably well-fixed. I'm not, and I've got to make sure that what I go into has some kind of payoff. How much money can you make on one of these?"
"Millions, if it works," said Welles. "About thirty-five dollars if it doesn't."
"Then there you are," said Gurney.
"What did I tell you, Tippy," said Welles, erupting once again. "And do you know why this is happening?" he asked. "Simple. It's because I want it so much."
With that, he got up from the table and walked toward the door, his friend following along, but not before she'd smiled apologetically at Gurney.
When the couple had left, Bombola sat down beside Gurney for the first time since the ex-dick had become a regular at the restaurant.
"Let me tell you a little bit more about Norman Welles," he said. "He's never actually done a Broadway musical, but years ago he composed the music for a string of tent shows that toured the country and made a lot of money. The shows were pure schlock, but surprisingly, a few of the songs became hits."
Bombola hummed a few, accompanying himself with jolly Vegas-style finger clicks. Though he was far from a buff, Gurney recognized at least one melody.
"Welles hasn't been heard from in recent years," said the restaurateur, "but the guy is loaded. Does he want to work with you?"
"Yes," said Gurney, still enjoying the fact that Bombola was actually sitting at his table. "But I don't think I'll do it. My idea is to coast along for a while. You probably know that I've just gotten divorced."
"Actually, I didn't know that," said Bombola. "But don't coast too long."
Gurney thanked him for the advice, then stretched out a bit and took in the view from the preferential table.
"I'm starved," he said. "Maybe I'll sit right here and try the liver and onions."
"Good call," said the owner. "But try it at the bar. I need the table."
The next week Welles phoned Gurney at his apartment and said that he would like to have lunch with him and a famous director named Clement Hartog who had become interested in the Homicider concept. Gurney did not like getting calls at home and found it irritating that the composer had gotten his unlisted number with such apparent ease. The only other calls he had received were for the one-armed Irish woman who had sublet the apartment to him. They were late-night ones from heavily accented men he assumed were her lovers. Gurney was a little short with Welles, but he had heard of Hartog, and thought it might be enjoyable to meet him.
The three had lunch the next day at a midtown restaurant favored by theatre people. Although Gurney did not do so intentionally, he arrived a bit late and was somewhat embarrassed about it. Welles received him warmly, but Clement Hartog seemed annoyed and did not meet his eyes, wheeling about instead to greet several famed actors seated at other tables. He was a watery-eyed man with a head of unruly gray hair and a magnificent profile. When one of the actors approached to shake his hand, Hartog began to do amputee imitations, making his arms disappear in his jacket as though they had been shot off and then dropping to his knees in what appeared to be a takeoff on Toulouse-Lautrec. After ten minutes or so, he seemed to weary of being cool to Gurney. Turning to the ex-dick, his eyes tearing up with sincerity, he said that he had decided to pass on several major projects because his heart wasn't really in them.
"Just once," he said, "I'd like to do a show I really care about. And by God, this material has all the earmarks of being that show. Violence. It's all around us. It's in the air we breathe, and as far as I'm concerned it's the only subject worth dealing with. I love Norman's music and I think his songs can bring it to life."
Gurney was quite flattered at having a man of Hartog's stature present himself in such an honest and naked way. It occurred to him that all of the really great ones were probably that way — secure enough in their abilities to be completely open-faced and candid.
"I'll work with you on it, Paul," said Hartog. "Right by your side, and I've never done that before with a librettist. I think that if we start in a week or so we can have it ready for the fall season. I'd like to call the show Violencia, unless one of you fellows has a better idea."
"I love it," said Welles.
"Sounds good to me," said Gurney.
Sitting in the legendary theatrical restaurant, being pursued with such earnestness by Welles and the celebrated director, Gurney, in spite of himself, felt a certain thrumming of excitement. Still, he thought it only fair to tell Hartog about his divorce and his plan to be cautious about taking on any bold new ventures.
"Jesus," said Hartog, "I can imagine how rough that must be. My heart goes out to you. But perhaps this will take your mind off it."
"Well, my mind really is off it," said Gurney.
But as he said this, he felt powerfully drawn toward Hartog and knew he would enjoy discussing his personal problems with the director, who must have been a good fifteen years his senior, and seemed awfully easy to be with.
"Can I have around a week to think it over?"
"You've got it," said Hartog, getting to his feet and shaking Gurney's hand. "And I do hope you'll decide to come in with us."
"Any young puss in the show?" Gurney asked, then whirled around swiftly as if to glare at the individual who had asked the self-conscious question. The coarse phrasing was a carryover from his years at the Bureau.
Hartog smiled weakly and tolerantly.
"Only kidding," said Gurney, as if to a parent.
But as soon as Hartog had said good-bye and left the restaurant, Welles said: "Don't worry, once we get out of town, there'll be more puss than you can handle."
"Frankly, I don't know if I'll be doing the show," said Gurney, "but that man is certainly impressive."
"We're damned lucky to get him," said Welles. "Not only that, but we kill two birds with one stone. We get Essie Hartog in the lead role. Terrific little actress."
"His mother," said Welles, calling for the check.
At first Gurney was shocked that Clement Hartog would agree — and even arrange — to have his own mother play the lead in a major musical under his direction. It seemed a cynical plan, and Gurney thought he understood the reason for the great director's interest in what had to be considered a strange and flimsy project — at least in this early stage: Obviously, it was the only way for Hartog to get work for his actress mother. But Gurney could not rid himself of the picture of the graying, world-renowned figure, leaning across the table toward him, eyes brimming with sincerity, and expressing with deep conviction what almost certainly had to be honest feelings for Violencia. Perhaps Gurney was being too hard on the man.
After mulling over the project for several days, he called John Gable, an ex-newspaperman who had taken over The Homicider when Gurney had left. As it turned out, it was Gable, a showbiz buff, who had passed along copies of The Homicider to Norman Welles — clearing up that mystery. Gable said that Essie Hartog was indeed a fine actress, although most of her starring roles had been on the Vienna stage some thirty years back. More recently, she had appeared briefly in a highly praised Noh play in Greenwich Village.
"She's good, all right," said Gable, a man not given to passing out compliments lightly, "and there's one thing handy about having her involved."
"As I recall, she can play either male or female roles."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Violencia!"
Copyright © 2001 Bruce Jay Friedman.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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